a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Outhouse humor

The outhouse behind my house. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – People often scrunch their noses and offer strange glances when they find out there is an outhouse on a back corner of the lot that also holds my house.

The reactions typically are followed up by their asking the same question: "You do have an indoor bathroom, too?"

I roll my eyes, usually cite the calendar year and reassure them my century-old house is equipped with the luxury of indoor plumbing.

It's impossible to know for sure why the former owner, Reggie Bakewell, decided the keep the outbuilding, even though it had fallen into disrepair and onto is side when I bought the property Webster, Pa., in 1987.

My best guess is that Bakewell, a steelworker, held onto his outhouse because he didn't trust his indoor loo to always function. His potty had been connected to an old brick-lined cistern without an outflow drain in the front yard. When the retrofitted septic tank filled, it backed up with each toilet flush into the bathtub until Bakewell could find a honey dipper to remove its contents. (Thankfully that problem since has been corrected)

The outhouse didn't become a priority for me, thought, until the adjoining property owner stormed over one day in the early 1990s and demanded I removed it from her property.

A preservationist at heart, I asked a good friend to help me right that ship and we put it back together the best we could. I then padlocked its front door because we didn't replace the floor and there is a long drop to the bottom of that concrete-lined pit. However, I did hold onto the double seater with yet-to-be-fulfilled plans to restore the interior.

Over the years the small building has become the butt of many jokes, a conversation piece, especially at Christmastime, when I string it with colored lights and hang a wreath on its front door.

And friends rarely miss an opportunity to give me all-things-related-to-outhouses as gag gifts.

My other "outhouse" collection has increased to include calendars, Christmas ornaments, a night light and even a liquid soap dispenser shaped like a privy.

A good friend surprised me one birthday with a creative outhouse birdhouse he built from weathered wood.

However, the pièce de résistance arrived this Christmas Eve in the form of a present from a great friend whom I've know since elementary school.

She gave me the novelty Santa's outhouse toy, shown below, that, with the press of a button, it's tiny holiday lights shine to the sounds of St. Nick passing gas and making silly comments about pooping.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas sugar fix fulfilled

Gummy eggs on a plate, sunny side up, definitely do not qualify as old-man candy.

Neither does a three-quarter pound cherry Gummy Bear.

That settled: Have a sweet holiday. 

(The goodies were found at Katie's Kandy, a newer store at 609 Amity St. above the tracks from the Waterfront shopping Mecca in Homestead, Pa. The old-town section of this former steel town is making a slow comeback, thanks to clever business folks such as Katie.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New Year's Resolution

Ben Hardt and Kelly Tobias, accompanied by New Shout, preform "New Year's Resolution" at the WYEP Holiday Hootenanny 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Winter Winds

Mark Dignam and Brooke Annibale, accompanied by the Panther Hollow String Band, perform "Winter Winds" at the WYEP Holiday Hootenanny 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pa.

This concert features great local musicians who alway puts me in the holiday spirit.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The nearly lost art of flocking Christmas trees

Mike Joseph of Joseph's Nursery & Garden Center in Monessen, Pa., explains the Christmas tree flocking process at his family-owned business. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

MONESSEN, Pa.  Last week I was interviewing a corporate executive from the Richmond, Va., area when, while making small talk, we discovered we had both grown up in the same region on the Monongahela River Valley.

He in Brownsville, Pa., and I, in Webster, a small Westmoreland County village 19 miles north of his Fayette County hometown.

Then he surprised me by saying he would drive five hours this way the next day to purchase a live, flocked Christmas tree at Joseph's Nursery & Garden Center in nearby Monessen.

"They're hard to find. You can't purchase them anywhere in Virginia," he said.

I hadn't seen or thought about such trees since I was a kid in the 1960s, when they were sort of popular and sold fluffy white or in pastel shades of pink and blue.

So yesterday I went in search of Joseph's, about four miles south of my house, a business I was familiar with only in name. I went there with my aunt to see its flocked trees and also purchase a regular fresh-cut tree for my living room.

The GPS app in my Droid inaccurately took me to 921 Rostraver Road in nearby Belle Vernon, past a Walmart and an Eat'n Park. A quick smartphone check there on Google maps directed me back to Monessen to a street entrance that had long ago been allowed to become overgrown with grass.

A little exploring on the hill there eventually put me on Rostraver Street and en route to Joseph's, a business sandwiched between houses in this decaying former steel town neighborhood.

Mike Joseph immediately greeted us and showed us his perfectly manicured trees grown on the family farm in Uniontown. It didn't take much urging for him to show us into the barn to see the flocked trees.

"People, if they've never seen it before, they think it's something new," Joseph said.

The flocking business, though, has been around since the 1930s, he said.

He went on to explain these trees are sprayed with ground cotton and rayon, mixed with water and glue, materials that swell when they dry over the course of two days.

When dry they are beautiful and sell for about $160.

What's even more beautiful about this business is the friendly customer service. Joseph and his father quickly bound my tree with cotton fishnet and tied it on the roof of my car.

It's no wonder Joseph's has survived decades in business, even in an area with devastated downtown business districts and big box stores breathing down its back.

The family defines all the reasons why it's good to shop local.

More examples of flocked pine at Joseph's Nursery & Garden Center in Monessen, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Twitter and business marriage success story

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Chris Dilla has jokingly referred to herself as a #mediaho on Twitter because of all the press attention she receives for her shrewd skills in the restaurant trade.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Twitter hashtags they are a way to separate conversations from the pack on that social networking site.

Dilla would probably chuckle and if another web junkie used  #socialmediaho in a reference to her since the Pittsburgh online market is flooded in a good way with her brand.

The owner of Bocktown Beer and Grill locations in North Fayette Township and Monaca, Pa., gets it. Social media is free to use and its positive impact on sales is undeniable. It's also helped to land her story in every local print market from the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and even a mention in Forbes.

Tweeting about her craft beers helped this self-made businesswoman experience a 20 percent increase in sales at her first bar during the throes of America’s great recession in 2009. While much of that success is due her restaurant’s good food and beer, it’s also a result of her ability to keep her customers interested and interacting with - or about - Bocktown via Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook.

“I’m not just telling them what the soup of the day is, I’m also reaching out to them with interesting links to craft beer, localism,” Dilla said in September, while presenting at the sixth PodCamp Pittsburgh, a popular conference on social and new media at Point Park University.

“Twitter brings real conversations. Everytime they are out there talking about Bocktown, Bocktown, Bocktown, I am thrilled.”

Many folks come to this event looking like deer stunned by headlights, pressured by their employers to join these online conversations to keep their jobs. Other attendees who have been tweeting since the dark ages of 2007 attend to keep up with new trends or to simply re-energize.

Dilla advice there is worth heeding.

“Don’t be spouting on Facebook about something you should be handling in person,” she said.

She once fired an employee for complaining about the boss on Facebook. The two shared 50 mutual FB friends, and, of course, the bitching quickly got back to Dilla, even though she had been blocked on Facebook from seeing that former worker’s postings. Big Duh.

She’s admittedly has made blunders, and one of the biggest came in the form of her telling a vagina joke on her business Twitter feed when she meant to post it under her personal identity.

“Don’t be afraid. You will make mistakes. There’s always the delete key," she said.

And she follows back those who follow Bocktown on Twitter.

“If it’s a one-way street, it will not work for you.”

Meanwhile, Dilla signed up for Google alerts to make sure she knows each time someone mentions Bocktown on the Internet.

“I link back to it. It’s a great resource. You can do every bit of it from a smartphone.”

And for those hashtags, she abuses them, but in a creative way.

She uses them to express her opinions while also hiding key words like Walmart from spambots.

She also urges her employees to find their voices on Twitter, to join the conversation, increase business and, ultimately, their tips.

“Twitter is the new television. We’re doing a better job on Twitter than some of the major news organizations,” Dilla said.